Idle Hands
His body battling the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Bucks County entrepreneur Fred Pirkle embraces his boldest challenge yet: jumpstarting the moribund U.S. manufacturing base
by Bill Donahue


The headline would read, “The Man Who Saved U.S. Manufacturing,” and beneath it would be a portrait of a bespectacled man with intense hazel eyes, a trim silver beard and a slightly cockeyed smile. This as-yet-unpublished story explains how the dollars, time and passion invested by this humble and seemingly simple man—a Texan by birth—helped invigorate the U.S. economy and give jobs to the jobless.


This is a man, after all, who recently pledged $25 million to Huntsville, Texas-based Sam Houston State University—his alma mater—to build an engineering-technology program designed to enrich the minds of those whose work will bring the rattle and hum of large-scale manufacturing back to American factories. His name: Fred Pirkle, prolific inventor, gifted entrepreneur and longtime Bucks County resident.


“This is all about making money available for education—young people who will be starting out a career,” says Pirkle, at his home on the edge of Warrington. “It’s about America needing to get back into the race and become a world-class manufacturer again. You know, we used to be the envy of the world, but that just went away as we started shipping technology abroad, exporting jobs. We need to be competitive with India, China, Sri Lanka—you name it. We’ve lost our manufacturing edge. I personally believe manufacturing in this country will come back with a vengeance, and it’s up to all of us to make it happen.


When I got my degree, my first job was teaching at a high school,” he continues. “I taught industrial arts, machine work, welding, sheet metal, electronics—a lot of different disciplines. … With today’s young people, I’ve got all the faith in the world in them; they’re going to take technology and really run with it and make things we’ve only dreamed of.”


Considering Pirkle’s near-hyperactive enthusiasm and a rare sort of brain that never stops churning out ideas that solve practical problems, it seems any number of years could not contain him. Yet Pirkle, who celebrated his 66th birthday in February, likely won’t be alive by the time the nation stages the return to manufacturing glory that he foresees.  


Age aside, there’s another and altogether more tragic reason for what Pirkle will consider an abbreviated number of years on this earth: a particularly aggressive and cruel infirmity called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—that has withered his body, confined him to a wheelchair and left him in need of round-the-clock care, with bedside machines to help him subsist.


Although his body has betrayed him, his mind continues to work its magic by conjuring inventions, including the one he is proudest of: a prototyped device that enables him—and, with any luck, others afflicted with similar ailments—to project his voice through an amplifier, despite his condition. Since 1983 such rich ideas have been the bedrock of his Warminster-based firm, Therm-Omega-Tech Inc., which manufactures temperature-control valves for various industrial applications, as well as a line of cooking devices and other accessories for barbecue grills under the BBQ Guru brand.


His illness has not kept him from maintaining regular trips to the office to “work on projects.” (One such project—the No Bow Shoe Tie, an uncomplicated plastic device that enables someone to tie his or her shoes with only one hand—came to him in the aftermath of a 2002 stroke that left one side of his body partially paralyzed.) Ideas also come to him during what he calls “lucid dreaming” in the hours just before dawn. No matter the source of his inspiration, his ideas usually end up as workable fodder for the craftsmen at Therm-Omega-Tech.


“I’ll sit with the engineers and talk about what we’re going to do about this, that and the other, and that’s a big help,” he says. “It keeps me busy and my attitude positive, and it has been very helpful in keeping my mind active.”


Although the life expectancy of an ALS patient averages about two to five years from the time of diagnosis, many people live with quality for five years or longer, according to the ALS Association, Washington, D.C. More than half of all patients live more than three years after their diagnosis. Pirkle, who was diagnosed with the disease last spring, recently came into contact with one local ALS patient who has lived with the disease for 13 years, while physicist Stephen Hawking has had a form of ALS for several decades.


Gift of a Lifetime

Regardless of Pirkle’s outcome, his reach will be felt for a very long time, not only by those closest to him, including the 60 or so people employed by his firm, but also by those who never had a chance to meet him—namely, engineering students at Sam Houston State. The university currently has as many as 300 students enrolled in its industrial-technology program, but Pirkle’s gift will essentially transform not only the department but also the university itself, beginning with the construction of the building that will bear his name—the Fred Pirkle Technology Center—and funding for internships, professorships and other enhancements.


The transformation could make enrollment in the program “quickly soar to 600 to 800 and rise to 1,000 before I leave here,” says Frank Holmes, vice president for university advancement at Sam Houston State. Beyond that, Pirkle’s actions have encouraged others to follow his example. One anonymous donor—a fellow alumnus inspired by Pirkle’s generosity—recently pledged a $1-million endowment to the university, according to Holmes.


“Fred’s contribution has the faculty excited, the campus excited and the donors aroused and willing to do more—not only because of what it will do for engineering technology but also because it’s inspiring others to do similar things,” he says. “I had the occasion to meet him twice in Warminster. His spirit, his optimism, his sense of humor, his zest for life—it made me ashamed of myself.”


Although Pirkle remains involved with his company and engaged in the pursuits of those around him, he is prepared for what he calls “my demise”—not that he wants to go anywhere anytime soon. He simply has too many inventions to create, too many problems to solve, too many lives to change.


“I guess I want to try to live as long as I can,” he says. “I’m blessed to have had a pretty good career, and I’m pleased I’ve been able to give back in some way that will help America and American youth. That’s really the goal, and I hope I can encourage others to do the same thing.


“My life has changed drastically since ALS. Before this knocked me down, I thought I’d be around for another 25 years. If I get another five or six years out of this, I’ll be happy. If I get another year or two, I guess that will be all right. … It really is a lot to endure, but I’m bound and determined not to let it get me down too bad, to keep on truckin’ and try to do something positive every day to help myself and others.”


Editor’s note: Fred Pirkle passed away last month while Suburban Life was reporting this story.